Last week, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa chided the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance for disputing the country’s election results: “We should all lose graciously.” And graciously indeed, Mnangagwa professed his humility at winning the presidential elections and promised “peace, unity and love,” encouraging all Zimbabweans to rebuild the country together. Yet, on the streets of Harare six people lost their lives when the military opened fire on opposition protesters. Unsurprisingly, observers have been quick to point out that there doesn’t seem to be anything new about the New Zimbabwe.
To be fair, the election period was much more peaceful than usual. The opposition was actually allowed to campaign, albeit without the resources of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Despite the insatiable thirst for change among urban Zimbabweans, pollsters expected Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF to win the presidential and parliamentarian races. ZANU-PF maintains a strong rural base, has managed to win credit for ousting Robert Mugabe and has been full of promises to kickstart the economy.
However, civil society group, We The People, received reports of 1,829 election violations in the seven weeks leading up to the elections, including 98 incidents of violence, 654 threats of violence, and 517 electoral malpractices. The alleged perpetrators were overwhelmingly reported to be members and supporters of ZANU-PF. International observers grumbled, but concluded that these violations were not significant enough to throw the election.
Yet MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa has continued to dispute the election results. Exactly how much Chamisa has to be sour over is uncertain. Violations certainly occurred and it took longer than expected for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to count the votes. Suspiciously, ZANU-PF won just enough support (144 out of 210 seats or 69%) to gain a two-thirds majority that allows the party to amend the constitution. Mnangagwa, too, won 50.8% of the vote, just enough to avoid a run-off. There is nevertheless little evidence of the large scale cheating claimed by Chamisa and well-meaning supporters who, understandably, have a deep distrust of the ZEC.
On the other hand, despite capturing the urban youth demographic, the charismatic Chamisa has made plenty of mistakes. The forceful manner in which he united several MDC splinter groups and small parties under the MDC Alliance alienated key opposition members, probably causing more harm than good among an opposition known for fraction. Then there’s the violence and threats of violence that sometimes emerge from within the opposition. Add to this Chamisa’s playing with the idea of an electoral boycott, claiming victory before results were announced and then predictably disputing those results. Given the opposition’s history of co-option by ZANU-PF – for example, the Zimbabwe Government of National Unity in 2009, which saw the opposition accepting ZANU-PF dominance in return for access to political office – the worst of Chamisa’s critics might be forgiven for questioning his motives. He reminds many of Kenyan opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who, despite valid concerns over electoral fraud, nevertheless appears willing to sacrifice the lives of his supporters to score political points and, by doing so, perhaps gain access to the gravy train.
So what’s next for the troubled country? Mnangagwa’s period of interim leadership failed to improve the economy, as investors decided to wait and see what the elections would bring. The recent violence appeared to confirm what many suspected: Mnangagwa’s military-backed administration is the same wolf (or crocodile), wearing the latest in knitted fashions. Any attempts by Mnangagwa to lessen the influence of the military (assuming he has any interest in doing so) are likely to be limited. The same holds true for a fractured opposition’s attempts to mobilise the public against the militarised government. Intermittent protests are the most likely outcome if the opposition continues to agitate against Mnangagwa’s reptilian regime.
If a measure of stability ensues in Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa might still be able to convince international donors and investors to opt in. International actors are happy to accept stability over democracy and human rights, especially if profits are to be made. Many Africans are also amenable to the compromise, if it leads to economic advancement. A series of reforms and the consequent return of international investment are likely to relieve the country’s liquidity crisis, improve the performance of the agricultural sector, increase investment in mining and lure back tourists. Short-term economic gains are possible given the low starting point.
Just as long as everyone accepts that a militarised ZANU-PF appears unlikely to allow for democratic change. As the opposition inevitably grows stronger with time, the crocodile will show more of its teeth. One can expect the odd violent repression of protests, the occasional assault of a dissenter, an arbitrary arrest or political kidnapping here and there. An acceptable amount of looting. Collective amnesia about the peace-loving President’s inconvenient connections to the massacres of yesteryear. As long as everyone is ok with the fact that the new, stable Zimbabwe will be a house of cards, constructed on a shaky foundation, bound to one day collapse all over again. In other words, as long as we’re all willing to lose graciously in the long run.
Reinet Loubser is a Researcher at the Centre for Conflict (CCR) in Cape Town.